In Part V of this series on building a championship roster for the Vikings (Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV links) I’ll look at the defensive secondary.
In a pass-driven league, defending the pass is the most important task for a defense. And while pass-rush and pass coverage play an interconnected role in defending the pass, pass coverage is the most important of the two as many pass plays are of the quick-hit variety where the ball is out before any pass rusher has a realistic chance to get to the quarterback.
Good coverage isn’t just not letting a receiver get open. It’s also denying the receiver the reception. It’s also not allowing many yards-after-catch when a completion is made. And it’s maintaining good coverage long enough to force the quarterback to throw it away or take a sack. And it’s taking advantage of interception opportunities when they arise.
To have a championship caliber defensive secondary, a team needs at least one shut-down cornerback- typically an outside cornerback- who doesn’t need safety help over the top and can be relied upon to not allow much production in his coverage. He can also cover any team’s top receiver by himself without creating a mismatch. But shutdown cornerbacks are often simply avoided by opposing quarterbacks, so defenses need other cornerbacks that can cover well too- even if they need safety help on occasion or don’t rise to the top-tier ‘shut-down’ level. Few cornerbacks do.
In addition to a solid group of cornerbacks, a championship caliber defensive secondary also has safeties that don’t allow the defense to get beaten deep, can cover a tight-end well, can close down passing windows, not allow many yards-after-catch, and turn errant throws and tipped balls into turnovers.
Assessing the Vikings Defensive Secondary Roster
There has been some activity in free agency as the Vikings retool this group as the Vikings move from a mostly zone coverage scheme under Ed Donatell, to more man coverage under Vikings’ new defensive coordinator Brian Flores. Patrick Peterson, the Vikings’ top starting cornerback last season, has signed with the Steelers. Cameron Dantzler has been waived. Duke Shelley signed with the Raiders. Chandon Sullivan is unlikely to be back. Together these cornerbacks played around 90% of the CB snaps last season. Harrison Smith has a new, significantly reduced one-year contract in what may be the final year in his Hall of Fame career. The Vikings biggest signing this off-season is Byron Murphy Jr., who is an inside/outside cornerback, but likely to play slot cornerback. He may play outside cornerback in base defense as well.
Murphy would be an upgrade over Chandon Sullivan last season, who led all slot corners in receptions, yards, and yards-after-catch allowed. But Murphy is far from a shut-down corner. He was average to below-average according to PFF grade and other metrics like snaps per target, snaps per reception allowed, and passer rating when targeted.
But for the other cornerback positions, the Vikings will likely be looking at developing unproven rookies from last season. They have three:
- Second-round pick Andrew Booth Jr., who had an injury history in college which continued as a rookie in Minnesota, although he didn’t appear to be the next one up even when healthy.
- Fourth-round pick Akayleb Evans Jr., who also was sidelined by injury last season, but who might have leapfrogged Booth on the depth chart, although that may have been due to Booth’s injury status.
- Seventh-round pick Kalon Barnes was signed off the Panthers practice squad in mid-December last year.
Both Booth and Evans have prototypical traits for the position, and Booth was regarded as top-tier with Derek Stingley and Sauce Gardner by some analysts in last year’s draft, but his injury history impacted his draft stock. Barnes is the fastest player on the Vikings team, with a 4.23” 40 time, but a bit small for the position and not as agile as Evans or Booth.
But let’s be clear. The Vikings don’t have a proven shut-down corner on their roster. We don’t really know what they have on their roster as outside of Byron Murphy Jr., the rest of the cornerbacks are all unproven. Evans and Booth had 162 and 105 snaps respectively last season, and both graded below 50 (poor) according to PFF and lower than Chandon Sullivan. Booth was the lowest graded defender for the Vikings last season, and Evans was 3rd worst.
At safety, the Vikings have a declining future Hall of Famer in Harrison Smith returning for likely his last season at age 34. Smith is likely to be more exclusively a strong safety in Brian Flores’ scheme. Smith’s overall PFF grade declined ten points last season, including a 13 point decline in coverage. Smith’s pass rush grade was a mediocre 55- his lowest grade in that area since 2013 and second-lowest of his career. Harrison is still an above average safety overall, but it’s reasonable to expect another overall decline in performance this season.
The Vikings' other starting safety last season was Cam Bynum, who might optimistically be described as having a sophomore slump last season after a good and promising rookie season in limited snaps. His PFF coverage grade declined 20 points last season, as did his overall grade, which is a steep decline. He was the lowest graded starting defender for the Vikings last season outside of Chandon Sullivan, who’s no longer with the team. His status for this season is more of a question mark, as is his potential at safety going forward.
The Vikings also have first-round pick Lewis Cine at safety, but who is recovering from a multiple fracture of his ankle/foot and missed his rookie season because of it. He appears to be making a full recovery, which is a positive development after suffering such a gruesome injury. But prior to the injury, Cine was very much in a learning curve and wasn’t challenging for a starting position in training camp.
Lastly there is Josh Mettellus, who is more of a strong safety. He played very well filling in for Harrison Smith last year, chalking up an 85 overall PFF grade on 261 defensive snaps last season, so provides quality depth in addition to being a core special teamer.
But given all of the above, the Vikings are a long way from fielding a championship caliber defensive secondary. At present, they optimistically have two starters of the needed quality to field a championship defensive secondary. That’s assuming Murphy works out and Harrison Smith doesn’t decline much this season. Beyond that, you could project Evans and Booth as the starters at outside cornerback, and either Cine or Bynum at the other safety spot, but expecting all of them to be quality starters after missing time their rookie seasons and not playing much is really nothing more than hoping for the best. More realistically, there will likely be significant growing pains for all of them and one or more may not pan out. In any case, new defensive coordinator Brian Flores, Defensive Backs coach Daronte Jones, and Safeties coach Roy Anderson have some heavy lifting ahead of them this off-season to develop these players into quality starters.
The free agent market for cornerbacks doesn’t fit the theme of Kwesi Adofo-Mensah’s acquisition strategy of signing promising veterans coming off their rookie contract on team-friendly deals. The top names are more of the post-30 type on the downside of their careers with relatively high market values. There may be a couple out there, but scheme fit is also a question.
Outside of a free agent acquisition, it seems likely that the Vikings will devote some significant draft capital on this group, including their first pick. The Vikings have met with more cornerback prospects than any other position, and it wouldn’t be surprising if they spent more than one pick at this position. That would still leave them with a largely unproven defensive secondary this season.
A team can’t afford a high-end veteran at every position group, or can’t obtain one that fits in free agency, and it looks like the Vikings are going the route of developing young talent in this group rather than spending for a top-tier player.
The Vikings remain a long way from having a championship caliber defensive secondary this season. It could be that with a change in scheme and the development of young talent- including top picks in last year’s draft- they could field a much-improved unit. But this is speculation rather than based any on-field proof at this point.
Brian Flores’ scheme is focused on pressuring the quarterback, including an above average blitz rate, could help out the secondary by not forcing them to cover for as long, and forcing more throws under pressure. The secondary may also be helped by using a more aggressive coverage scheme. Ed Donatell’s bend-but-not-break scheme last season often seemed perfectly willing to yield underneath receptions with large cushions and a preponderance of zone coverage that (perhaps) made it difficult for cornerbacks to do well.
On the other hand, Flores’ scheme can also be more demanding of its secondary personnel by playing more man coverage and expecting them to maintain tight coverage or yield big plays. How well Flores and his staff can develop the young talent on the roster- and likely new draft picks as well- will determine the fate of this unit in the coming season.
The Vikings ranked 31st in passing yards allowed last season, and 30th in yards per reception allowed. Where will they rank this season?
This poll is closed